Bringing a 1930’s film poster back to life
This summer, Fleur van der Woude and Juliet Baines carried out a challenging conservation treatment of a huge, beautifully designed film poster from 1931 in the film related collections of the EYE Filmmuseum. The poster was in a terrible condition when it arrived in the conservation studio, but it returned to the museum fit for handling and display!
Fleur and Juliet are post graduate book and paper conservators in training at the department of Conservation and Restoration of the University of Amsterdam (UvA). This blog post will take you through their experiences and will touch upon some of the challenges they encountered.
Unfolding the folds
The poster arrived at the conservation studio folded. Due to tears and brittleness, it was impossible to handle the paper without causing more damage. When carefully unfolded the poster turned out to measure an impressive 240 cm in width and 160 cm in height. The lithograph depicts a lady in a bright red jumpsuit kicking a grey cooking pot. The text on the poster is all printed in black. The use of only three colours gives the poster a minimalistic look while the composition is lively due to the body movement of the lady in red. The poster is from a French comedy called ‘Nicole et sa Vertu’ that was released in 1931. The poster itself dates from around the same time. To make handling and viewing of this attractive poster possible, a conservation treatment had to be carried out. Tearing of the paper meant the poster was now in four parts while it was initially compiled of two halves that could be attached using a pasting strip in the middle. However, the pasting strip showed no sign of it ever being used, indicating the two halves of this poster were never adhered together. Therefore, the decision was made to keep the two halves apart. The size of the two halves, both 120x160 cm, still meant the conservation treatment was a challenge for the two conservators, demanding a creative use of tools, space and workforce.
Exciting times for ‘the lady in red’
First, the paper was washed to remove degradation products and strengthen the paper. Next, a lining of Japanese paper was adhered to the back of the poster using wheat starch paste. For lining of the poster a flat surface was needed. None of the tables available in the studio turned out to be big enough. Particle board was cut to size and covered with a sheet of Melinex®, a transparent polyester foil, to create a big enough flat surface to work on. After a first lining, Japanese paper and starch paste was used to fill in missing areas and reinforce tears. Finally, a second lining was applied.
The Japanese paper used for the lining weighs 6 grams per square meter, which is extremely thin. In comparison, the paper generally used in printers weighs 80 grams per square meter. The decision to line the poster with this type of paper was based on previous conservation treatments on film posters in Eye’s collection carried out by Art Conservation Europe. These posters were machine-lined with 6 grams Japanese paper and had gained a lot of strength while maintaining their original thickness and flexibility as much as possible. Also, the writing or printing on the back of these posters is still visible through the thin lining paper.
The choice for lining by hand with extremely thin Japanese paper in combination with the size of the poster, meant the lining had to be made up out of thirty smaller sheets of paper instead of one single sheet. After the first lining, a second lining was applied to prevent undesirable tension because the orientation of the paper fibres of the second lining was positioned perpendicular to the orientation of the fibres in the first lining.
To apply the pasted Japanese paper to the back of the poster, a Japanese lining technique was used. The lining paper is placed on a flat surface and with a special, traditional Japanese brush, the thin paste is applied evenly. Then, a corner of the pasted paper is lifted and adhered to a wooden stick. The stick is used to lift the paper and to place the paper onto the object. While one hand holds the stick horizontally, the other hand positions the edge of the pasted lining paper on the back of the object. Because of the extremely thin and fragile lining paper, a second set of hands was needed to accurately position the paper. But even with two pairs of hands, the two conservators could be heard whispering to one another, wishing for a third pair!
After drying under light weights to flatten the paper, retouching was carried out using water colour pencils. The water colour pencil was only applied in the areas where the Japanese paper lining was visible through a hole in the original poster. Here, the white Japanese paper was retouched to a yellowish brown close to the colour of the original paper to make the repair less visible. In consultation with Soeluh van den Berg, curator and head of the film related collections at EYE, it was decided to be modest in retouching and allow the age of the material to be visible. The same goes for the brown chequered pattern caused by degradation of the folding lines, as well as the discolorations caused by fatty components in the printing ink created in areas where ink and paper were in direct contact when folded. Both patterns of discoloration are still clearly visible on the poster. Removing them would require a more invasive approach using bleaching techniques that would weaken the paper in these areas even more. Although, by some viewers, these areas with stronger discolouration might be experienced as distracting, they are part of the history of the object as they show what the poster has been through.
A bright future in a dark archive
The poster is now stored in the archive of EYE. In the archival storage, a stable climate of around 18 °C and a relative humidity of around 50% is maintained to slow down the degradation of the materials. Light is only turned on when staff members need to handle objects in storage. The poster is stored in a folder made of acid-free cardboard with sheets of TST® interleaving between the two halves of the poster. This prevents more discolouration as the interleaving keeps the printing ink from being in direct contact with the paper on top. The folder is kept in a big drawer where the object is stored flat. After conservation, this poster has a future again, and it has helped two young paper conservators to gain more experience in dealing with a fragile and oversized object.
Photography and image editing by Juliet Baines, Fleur van der Woude and Nick Kuijpers.
Text by Juliet Baines, Fleur van der Woude (editor) and Aafke Weller (editor)